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Nevada to use pandemic funds on school lunches

Aug 28, 2020  | Ep4602

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers in a finance committee meeting Thursday approved $26 million to ensure qualifying students can continue to get free and reduced-price meals even if their schools aren't holding in-person classes.

About 302,000, or 64% of the state's K-12 students, qualify for federally funded free and reduced-price meals at school. With the economy contracting and school closures preventing students from receiving their meals in cafeterias, lawmakers and advocates worry about food insecurity and ensuring continued access to meals for Nevada children.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $54.9 million in coronavirus relief dollars to supplement Nevada's school meal programs and summer food service program and waived the requirement that they only be served on-site. Thus far, the funds have helped school districts meet unanticipated costs that have arisen amid the pandemic, as many providers have had to devise new methods to continue providing meals to qualifying students.

The vote Thursday in the Legislature's interim finance committee allows the state agriculture department to spend the remainder of the funds on meal programs for the upcoming school year.

Patricia Hoppe, the agriculture department's deputy administrator, said schools were limited in how they could spend the money. Districts and program sponsors, she said, could use the funds for meals or for packaging, distribution and standing up "grab-and-go" or meal-delivery programs to make sure children don't go hungry.

Nevada spent $18 million from the onset of the pandemic until the end of the school year, $17 million on its summer food service program and projects it will spend an additional $20 million providing meals throughout the rest of the budget year.

Five weeks after lawmakers approved painful cuts to Nevada's education and health care systems, the large line-item caught the eye of Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus, R-Wellington, who asked if it supplemented or supplanted existing funds for meal programs.

Titus acknowledged the newfound challenges and potential food insecurity facing students and families throughout Nevada. But because of difficulty anticipating costs, she told Hoppe and fellow lawmakers, "I'm needing some reassurance that this money is well spent and not just being thrown at folks without a plan."

With negotiations over another relief package stalled in the Congress and existing relief dollars depleting more each day, most state and local governments are worried about rising pandemic-related expenses. For both Titus and other lawmakers, confusion over the amount of funds and how they could be used underscored the complexities over how states can use coronavirus relief dollars.

The funds were approved as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and went to agriculture departments in the states to supplement funding for nutrition programs as well. Hoppe said the extra funds were a surprise to Nevada officials and allowed the state agriculture department to revert a portion of the money it typically uses for nutrition programs back to its coffers.

"I have to say that we were just given this amount by USDA. It was just assigned to us. We were not involved in a particular formula, so we can't tell how they decided to give Nevada $54 million," Hoppe said.

Although demand and distribution costs may increase, Hoppe said other expenses could go down. School districts, tribes and community organizations have set up additional distribution sites. But without regular bus service and with often scant information provided to parents, the number of meals distributed through spring and summer decreased, Hoppe said.

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said there was little doubt Nevada needed supplemental funding to feed residents in need. Confusion and restrictions on how the state agriculture department can use the funds, she added, prevented efficient distribution.

"It would be better if (the federal government) communicated with us, but unfortunately that wasn't the case with this particular item. I know that food banks and food pantries that are very important to a lot of these communities are not able to access these dollars. I believe that was a large oversight on the federal government's part," she said.

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